Sunday, January 3, 2016

On Vocal Fry, Bitterness, and Being a Woman

Oh squee, we have another recency illusion! On the evolution of the valspeak vocal fry: a LONG podcast, but a most interesting one, including as it does such an intensity of apparently unironic white male self-congratulation and feminine condemnation. For shorter, written pieces with a more interesting and scientifically useful bent, take a look at the debunking of the habits of vocal fry and uptalk as a privileged little American girl fashion (from the NYT – a really good look at the phenomenon and its *strategic* [defensive] utility), and here, the personal story of a woman who took a stab at rehabilitating her vocal creak – and then didn’t.

Full disclosure: I am EXTREMELY guilty of judging young women by their voices. I have ranted alone at my television and even talked with my mom about the buzzy, baby voices younger women use – the very picture of the judgmental old lady in my hatred of the sound. There will be a long and serious review of how much of my prejudice is born of self-hatred (my own tendency to valspeak as a kid, and many years of self-training to get over the noise) and how much of it is the bigotry born of age and the privilege that my own voice is so often *heard*. From the NYT link … "young women were generally interrupted more than men and so it’s a defense mechanism" …

In a mental review of the voices of the women and some of the men I love, there appears little creak among them, but uptalk (rising terminal inflection) is very common. My mom has a strong voice, and just on Christmas, I heard once again what I have heard since I was nine or so, that I sound just like her. I take this as a compliment; my mom has a jolly way of speaking. My oldest friend, TEO, has a soft way of speaking, but not lacking for authority; she is a mother and a teacher, and speaks smoothly and gently, but is not breathy. She uses lilt in the strategic ways noted in the New York Times article, and may not always assert dominance with her voice, but her confidence is complete.

Cute Shoes has a particularly beautiful voice. Low but never nasal and buzzing, she uses uptalk inflection with precision – again, a mother, and a professional manager, she nudges vocally with great effect.

My brother sometimes uptalks – he is a father of two girls, and guides them with a questioning voice, prompting them to display what they know, rather than telling them as if they don’t.

Mr. X, a man of six-feet-four and an impenetrably dour resting expression, can appear physically intimidating in a way, but has a manner of speech that focuses on his breath in a way that makes it more noticeable to me than I find it to be in other people. His speech most often is quiet, modulated. Modulated or even regulated. His breath is plosive, strong as Rowan Atkinson speaking the letter “B”, if he’s pressed to humor or surprise or passion. But most of the time, his voice is held back; he speaks with what I’d describe almost as another kind of “creak” – the softness of restrained pressure. I think of the way he says “Hello” on the phone, or the first time I really heard him speak, and am struck by the idea he often seems almost to be holding his breath. It’s not an unnatural sound – he doesn’t seem strained – only holding in reserve; typical of him psychologically too.

My dad had a warm and gravelly voice. No creak there, just the patina of a man of great experience, some years of smoking, even more of teaching, many of parenting, and all of loving. Like the satin-ing silver sheen of wood handled and handled again over long ages, it was strong and beautiful and deep and weathered. I can’t remember my dad’s voice at thirty; but, by sixty-five, he had a distinctive, soft growl.

Even dad used upspeak, though. He prompted his students, pulled his kids along on the upturned lilt of the inflection of his sentences, not all of them interrogative. His rising terminal was unlike that we think of when the term “uptalk” crops up – a promontory, not a steep rise. A place inviting you out to its tip, to take a look at the vista.

In 1981, still in middle school, I had left the small world of grade school behind, and came across people with the early-80s Eastern hippie inflected speech that seemed to me then and now to share a lot with what we soon were calling valspeak. Then high school, Zappa’s daughter, horizontal-striped shirts with puffed sleeves … and my own regrettable teenage speech.

Maybe I don’t really regret it.

But I did spend some years in remediating it.

I was never raised to be a woman out to form myself in the shape to please a man, but one or two points my dad made about the appeal of a woman did strike home (eventually). The major one was that a woman walks with grace, not a bounce. I feel like I saw Grace Kelly swiftly descending a long staircase, a long gown hiding all evidence she owned legs and feet, her head smooth as if on a gimbal, yet clearly RUNNING down, to catch a Cary Grant perhaps, in “To Catch a Thief” – but the image stays with me, real or imagined, transplanted from the wrong movie or not – that was grace the thing, in Grace, the woman.

Grace was one of the few things dad exhorted upon me as his girl child, and it’s not one I ever resented – and another measure of grace, aside from movement (which I cannot generally do so beautifully) is a womanly, beautiful voice.

I may not have attained any more beauty in my voice than in my physical comportment – but it is true I treasure the compliment once received, that my voice sounds like brownies baking.

It used to be I’d get joked at, “You should have your own 976-number.” This was a thing, kids, twenty years ago when porn was performed live by phone – and presumably I had a SENSUAL voice, which may or  may not have been typical of real sex-operators’ voices, but the general idea was meant to convey that I sounded good. (Or quite naughty …)

And, of course, the oldest comment of them all, “You sound like your mother.”

At work, in particular, I cultivate a variety of voices – for “my kids”, a warm and southern style – for new calls, professional and modulated, lapsing easily into laughter and friendliness where possible – or occasionally slipping toward interrogative-inflected passive (aggressive) voice, depending on how things need to be guided.

With my friends, mom, and brother, I like to think I am most often laughing or listening. We like to think a lot of positive things about ourselves, I suppose …

What about you?

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